Seasonal affective disorder

Tralee Pearce reveals how the cold, dark season can put a damper on your kids’ mental health

As winter stretches on, all grey skies and bitter chills, most parents make sure to bundle up their little ones and crack open the vitamin-C gummies in the hopes of keeping them healthy.

But experts say parents should also capitalize on those rare sunny days and take their children out to play — not just for exercise, but for good mental health. It turns out kids can suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), just as adults do.

In a culture that can be dismissive of SAD as nothing more than a seasonal whine-fest, it can be difficult to get the message out, experts say. “This is not the winter blues. This is the real deal,” says child psychiatrist Roberto Sassi of the Mood Disorders Program at McMaster University in Hamilton.

Clinically, SAD is categorized as a type of major depression, but one which is triggered or intensified by a decrease in the hours of light in the late fall and early winter. Every year, Sassi begins to see an uptick in new cases in January.

While there aren’t specific statistics on the prevalence of SAD in Canadian kids, studies suggest that depression, in general, affects up to eight percent of all children, with higher percentages occurring during the teen years. “Girls, especially post-puberty, are twice as likely as boys to have any kind of depression, including SAD,” says Sassi. “There’s something about girls after they start their period that increases the likelihood of depression.”

While many of the symptoms are the same for adults and children (severe changes in mood, sleep and appetite patterns, lasting for more than a week, for instance), a few of the signs are completely different and can seem more like a discipline problem.

“Unlike adults, children don’t tend to appear sad,” says Sassi. “It’s more common that they seem more grouchy.”

Complicating matters is the fact that daylight hours happen to shrink just as the increasingly stressful school year gets going, so deciphering symptoms can be a puzzle.

“In children and adolescents, because life demands may be very different during the school year, there’s an additional issue of ruling out circumstantial changes in stress,” says mental health expert Janis Anderson of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She says many parents also don’t think of SAD when it comes to their kids, unless it runs in the family.

Once diagnosed, though, many cases can be treated without psychotherapy or medication. Kids can be taught about SAD and told: “You have to expose yourself to a bit more light. So go out for a walk for an hour on a bright, sunny winter day,” says Sassi.

If that’s not enough, SAD-targeted light boxes are the next step, and studies have shown that children benefit from the same “dose” as adults. A typical patient needs 45 minutes to an hour, usually in the morning. Since the therapy works via the eye’s retina, Sassi  suggests putting it right on the breakfast table (but make sure kids don’t stare directly at the light).

And for the rest of us? Bundle up!

“By far the most effective thing you can do is set aside time to be outdoors with your kid and expose yourself to light,” says Sassi.

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